If you shop at your local farmer’s market, you already know there is a wide range of small producers providing local vegetables, cheeses, honey, eggs and more. But for every stand at the market, there’s also a farmer you never see. That’s the farmer who works only with restaurants, collaborating closely with their local chefs to test new ingredients.
Why is that important? These chef and farmer partnerships are where food trends begin. If you want to know what funky new vegetable will be in grocery stores next year, check out what your favorite cutting-edge restaurant is serving this summer. Chefs and farmers show us how to eat something new, and then we seek it out and tell our friends. At Café Provencal and the Gabriel Archer Tavern, we’re excited to be working with some great farmers to help set those food trends.
One farm that has been pivotal in shaping the Virginia food scene is Manakintowne Local Growers. Jo and Rob Pendergraph farm 21 acres of rich land in Powhatan, Virginia, but you’ll only find their salad greens, edible flowers, specialty peppers and fresh herbs on restaurant plates or at local groceries. It’s a partnership that started with the Pendergraphs knocking on kitchen doors, and has grown into a collaborative laboratory of research and development.
“We started our business 30 years ago growing for chefs, and that’s what we still do,” says Jo. “Chefs really appreciate quality. They’re creative, and they always want to try something new.”
For example, several years ago one of the chefs at Fat Canary in Williamsburg asked Jo about a spicy pepper he remembered from working in Europe. After doing a little research, Jo discovered that his coveted Espilette peppers weren’t available in the United States. In fact, they are a protected class of foods in France known as “d’origine controlee,” meaning (like Champagne) they can only be called “Espilette” if they are grown in an approved region of France.
“We couldn’t find any seeds here,” Jo says. “But a small farmer in England sent us a tiny packet.” Today, Manakintowne is known for their distinctive “espilette-style” peppers that they sell to restaurants fresh, powdered, and in a hot sauce.
“Our baseline is our salad green mix, a shoots mix, edible flowers and fresh herbs,” Jo says. “But then we grow a small amount of a wide variety of other things.” Jo and Rob grow about 60 varieties of edibles, Jo estimates. They are always testing something new, which means they may only have a few pounds of a new carrot variety, or a fresh Mexican herb.
These smaller experimental crops often don’t even make it to the Manakintowne order list that most of their customers choose from. Instead, Jo hand-sells them at the back door of the progressive kitchens, offering them to the chefs most likely to play around with something new. If the test vegetable is a hit, Manakintowne will grow more the following year, and add it to the order list. By then, other chefs have heard of it and are interested in trying it out.
In this chef and farmer test lab, restaurant diners are the guinea pigs – in a good way. You may be hesitant to buy a mysterious reddish knob of leaves advertised as “bitter greens” at the farmer’s market. But when one of the area’s top chefs serves you charred radicchio drizzled with a balsamic glaze, you’ll be eager to serve that at your next dinner party.
Manakintowne is expanding to help bring even smaller farms into the fold. These farms may produce small amounts of only one specialty – an Asian root vegetable, for example, or duck eggs – not even enough to make it worth the drive to a farmer’s market. But if Manakintowne carries that item to chefs who end up loving it, that could help the small farmer expand.
“We are always adding new things, learning new things, and trying new things,” Jo says. “With farming you only get one shot every year, because the weather is always different. And there’s always so much to learn!”
The next time you see something a colorful new squash or carrot on the plate at Café Provencaland the Gabriel Archer Tavern, know that it will probably be coming to the farmer’s market next. And you'll be the one who knows what it is!